A foundation of fierce self-compassion allows us to take action in our lives and in the world while holding ourselves in loving kindness. But as much as we see the benefit of having compassion for ourselves, some things may trip us up along the way. So, what are some common roadblocks to fierce self-compassion?
We Don’t Believe We Deserve Self-Compassion
We may not believe we are worthy of self-compassion, especially if we have low self-esteem or suffer from depression. Our belief that we don’t deserve self-compassion can keep us from the very thing we need in order to feel better and do better. But we can begin to practice self-compassion in small and simple ways even if we don’t yet feel we deserve it. Place your hand over your heart and follow your breathing. Take care of yourself by going for a walk or drinking a glass of water. Try bringing awareness to what you are feeling without judgment. As you practice self-compassion, you will develop more and more capacity to respond to yourself with kindness.
We Don’t Think Self-Compassion Can Motivate Us
We may believe that being kind to ourselves means we will become relaxed and complacent to the point of laziness, and never get anything done. In fact, the harsh voice of our inner critic, though well-meaning, is demotivating. When we beat ourselves up, we wear ourselves down, and become less productive. This can lead to a vicious cycle: we can’t get anything done because we feel bad about not getting anything done. Fierce self-compassion is actually a highly effective motivator. Treating ourselves with understanding and kindness raises our energy and gives us a strong foundation for productivity.
Near and Far Enemies of Self-Compassion
Each of the three components of self-compassion – mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity – has a “near enemy” and a “far enemy.” Far enemies are the opposite of what we mean to achieve. Near enemies are sneaky: they appear similar to our goals of mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity, but they are actually obstacles to fierce self-compassion.
The far enemy of mindfulness is emotional reactivity. This can happen when we witness an injustice and experience outrage, and are hijacked by our our anger or fear. We may have a visceral, fight-or-flight response in our body. As Viktor Frankl famously stated, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Mindfulness allows us to choose.
The near enemy of mindfulness is complacency. Complacency is an apathetic acceptance of how things are. This is different than acceptance of reality as a starting point for change. Complacency soothes us by saying everything is fine as it is, but it is a false peace. True mindfulness sees reality clearly, and is willing to rock the boat to do what is right. When we add fierce self-compassion to mindfulness, we get clarity, authenticity, and vision.
The far enemy of kindness is hostility. Hostility typically comes out of anger. The point is not to deny or suppress our anger, but to harness it and make it useful. Our anger is there to protect us and to let us know when we, or someone we care about, are at risk of physical or emotional harm. But if we let it run wild, it may turn into hostility towards a person or group of people. We may want that person or group of people to suffer or be punished, and lose focus on solving the injustice. This applies to self-kindness also; we can become hostile with ourselves.
The near enemy of kindness is pity. Pity is looking down on someone or feeling sorry for them in a kind of disconnected way, rather than being with them in their suffering. It shows up as “nice,” but it is not kind. Pity says, “Oh, that’s too bad, what a shame,” and then moves on, releasing us from all responsibility. Self-pity prevents us from getting in touch with our own pain, which in turn closes us off to the pain of others. When we add fierce self-compassion to self-kindness, we get bravery, fulfillment, and encouragement.
The far enemy of common humanity is demonizing. We demonize others when we believe we are better than them. When we don’t see the humanity in someone else, we disconnect from them and their suffering. It can be extremely challenging not to demonize a person or group who has caused harm to us or those we care about. But we can also demonize parts of ourselves. Do you believe you are better than your inner critic?
The near enemy of common humanity is sameness. Sameness dismisses the differences between us. “We’re all in the same boat” is an example of sameness. It looks like common humanity on the surface, but it ignores the very different ways people can be affected by the same events. A single mother of three school-age children is likely experiencing the pandemic very differently than than a retired couple. We also do not all have the same capacity to cope with any given situation.
So how does sameness apply to self-compassion? We may shame ourselves for being more or less affected by something than someone else, or having a more difficult time coping with something, because we believe everyone is going through the same thing. Some things will feel harder for you. It might be harder today than yesterday. Part of common humanity is recognizing that as humans, we all experience things differently. Part of self-compassion is validating our own feelings and experiences without judgment. When we add fierce self-compassion to common humanity, we get empowerment, balance, and wisdom.
Dr. Kristin Neff, who is a Professor at the University of Texas in Austin, talks about destructive and constructive anger in her latest best-selling book titled Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness To Speak Up, Claim Their Power, And Thrive. Don’t let the title fool you, it’s a great read and applicable to all genders. Dr. Neff says, “Destructive anger rejects and blames people in a personal way… is self-righteous and doesn’t care about the potential fallout.” She then goes on to say, “Constructive anger is the process by which a person stands up for herself and defends her rights without hostility or aggression.” This then has a direct effect to improve our mental wellness, physical health, and immune function. Often when I lead my mindfulness classes, I give the examples of ancient eastern phrases such as “anger corrodes the vessel that contains it,” or the example of destructive anger is like the hot coal you pick up to throw at someone, but burns your hand instead.
Once we understand the roadblocks to fierce self-compassion, we can be on the lookout for them on our journey. When we recognize a thought or belief that may be getting in the way of our fierceness, we can reconnect to mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity.